Saturday, June 24, 2017

Journalists Tell Cooksville’s Story: Here’s an Article from 1929

Journalists have been writing stories about the historic Village of Cooksville and its people for many decades—actually, during the past 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. In newspapers and magazines, in feature articles and gossip columns (and occasionally in books), writers have been drawn to the charming little “Town that Time Forgot” and to the “Wee Bit of New England in Wisconsin.” 

Or in the case of a 1929 story in The Milwaukee Journal, “The Town Daniel Webster Once Owned,” with the subtitle “Philosophizing Blacksmith Is the Only Citizen of Cooksville, Wis., Without Artistic Inclinations and Even His Practicality Weakens at Times.”

This year, 2017, Cooksville celebrates 175 years since its birth in 1842, years filled with typical events of  settlement and growth---and then, in Cooksville's case, decline and then re-discovery, recognition and re-birth. The journalists’ views over the years provide snapshots at various times in the village’s history, including the fact that the famous Senator Daniel Webster first owned much of Cooksville in 1837, buying the promising new land from the U.S. government when it went on sale for the first time in history.
The following are excerpts from that lengthy Milwaukee Journal feature article of September 22, 1929, in which the writer, who had no byline, was interviewing Jack Robertson (1858-1930), the village blacksmith and popular fiddle-player. Four large photographs accompanied the full-page article. Excerpts follow:

* * * * *
Everybody on Webster St. is either literary or artistic except Jack Robertson. And he is a fiddling blacksmith…. Cooksville is not the unimaginative collection of stores, tumbled down houses and brand new bungalows…. Instead it is picture in red brick, the quaintest village in Wisconsin…. Its houses, including Jack Robertson’s blacksmith shop, all front a village green.… so that, after the mellowing of three-quarters of a century, they seem to rise as naturally from the earth as the giant elms and maples and oaks near their front doors. The bricks were burned in a kiln nearby…..

Everybody has a flower garden, except Jack Robertson. Beside the converted stable that forms his shop and living quarters, is a field of tobacco.

Jack Robertson's Blacksmith Shop
The gardens of the literary folks are things of beauty. Narrow walks divide beds of flowers that seem to be looking at you instead of you looking at them. Hollyhocks and giant phlox and cosmos stare you straight in the eye like a western sheriff.

The writers are in their houses tapping away on typewriters. The poet [Arthur Kramer. ed.]  is in front of an upper window where the white curtain blows in and out. The artistic lady [Dorothy Kramer, ed.] is weaving a rug.

Dorothy Kramer (1900-1962), weaver and potter
Jack Robertson sits in a swing in front of his blacksmith shop, one arm around a rope.

Ask him if he has lived in Cooksville all his life. “Not yet, he replies.”

“My father,” he continues, “was a Scotsman who farmed it out east of here and later bought out the village store.”….. You glance upward to a weather vane balanced by a fan. “Now you are looking at some of my work,” says the blacksmith. “I cut those figures out of sheet steel….They’re just figures. That one on top of the shop, though, is a man sitting on a fish’s back.”

It is just a man riding a fish. It was made in his spare time and no doubt because the blacksmith wanted to show his literary and artistic neighbors that he too could create something useless originating in an esthetic urge. When your neighbors are writing poetry, you don’t want to devote all of your time to wagon tongues and plow blades.

“I used to own the house next door,” the blacksmith continues, pointing to the red brick home of the poet. He lowers his voice. “I don’t know what he is writing,” he whispers, “but whenever I hear him tapping away, I know he is figuring out something.”

“Everybody’s stuck on Cooksville,” he continues. “They like to ride out in their automobiles and so they come here to look over Ralph Warner’s place and Cooksville. They all go crazy over the park; they call it a ‘village green,’ or a ‘common.’” The blacksmith snickers. “It’s full of weeds.”
Susan Porter  (1859-1939)
Next to the poet lives Miss Susan Porter, the historian, the old settlers’ club, the voice of oldtime Cooksville…..familiar with every bit of history and tradition connected with the little town ….[and] the great Daniel Webster….
Senator Daniel Webster (1782-1852)
Miss Porter tells you that Mr. Webster sold the site of Cooksville to his family physician, Dr. John Porter, [who] in turn, resold to his brother, Dr. Isaac Porter, who deserves to have his name placed high in the list of Wisconsin pioneers, in spite of the fact that he only lived in the state three days. For when a case of smallpox made its appearance on the Great Lakes steamer bound for Milwaukee, Dr. Porter cared for the patient…. he hardly reached what today is Cooksville before he fell sick with the disease. In three days he was dead. This was in 1854. His sons were Cooksville pioneers….

In an early plat the town was not called “Cooksville,” but “Waucoma,” taking its name from the little river on which it is situated. In those early days the town fully expected that “the railroad was to go through,” an anticipation that never became a reality. And Waucoma, later become Cooksville, for years thereafter led a dull existence like some pretty country girl whose city lover hurried off after the first kiss….until the automobile came to summon Cooksville….to a giddy middle age.

Ralph Warner, at the door of his "House Next Door"
Without it you would never have Ralph Warner’s tea room.... Some 18 years ago, Mr. Warner, an artist and a collector, while a guest at Miss Porter’s home, became fascinated with the house next to her home….. and ever since it has been known as “The House Next Door”….. he gave up teaching art to devote all of his time to entertaining the automobilists who come to The House Next Door. 
Occasionally, Mr. Warner, moved by the spirit of the past that possesses Cooksville, dons a long coat and beaver hat to greet his guests…. land’s sakes, look at the automobiles today——two big shining cars in front of Mr. Warner’s right now——ladies in flowered chiffon walking in the garden, others chatting in the parlor, tea brewing——.

Jack Robertson, blacksmith and fiddler (1858-1930)
And the blacksmith swinging away. “Say,” he calls, “I forgot to tell you. Alec Richardson down the street here——he don’t write——he sells bonds in Madison.”

*** End of the 1929 Article ***

[Sadly, the following year, Jack Robertson committed suicide by shotgun. From the Cooksville Archives. Larry Reed, ed.]

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Celebrating Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th Birthday:

His Chapel Design for Cooksville 

Wisconsin is celebrating the birthday of Frank Lloyd Wright, born 150 years ago in 1867 in Richland Center, Wisconsin, He was and is America’s most famous architect —perhaps the world’s, as well. Wright designed about 150 structures for Wisconsin alone, with about 43 being built. He died in 1959 in Arizona.
And Frank Lloyd Wright has a connection to Cooksville.   

One of his designs was for a chapel to be built near the little historic village in Rock County. Wright named the chapel a “Memorial to the Soil.” Designed in late 1934, it was to be a small Prairie School style family chapel that he also referred to as a “Chapel Cast in Concrete” and was inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” 

However, the Cooksville chapel project was never built. 

The chapel had been commissioned by the Gideon Newman family of Cooksville, but which family member(s) actually dealt with Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s is not known. The Newman family was one of the early settlers in the village, where they farmed nearby land. The younger Gideon Newman may have known Frank Lloyd Wright at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where both were in attendance in 1886. And, of course, by 1934 Wright was a well-known architect, with his studio at Taliesin near Spring Green, Wisconsin.   

The Cooksville chapel was to be built just north of the Badfish Creek on the Newman family farm.  

Existing evidence of the “Memorial to the Soil” project consists of sketches, drawings and prospective elevations, as well as newspaper articles. They reveal a beautiful Wrightian “organic” Prairie School style building horizontally hugging the soil. A welcoming Art Deco stylized sculpture stands near the entry and a small garden and pool is visible through the windows behind the choir’s benches. The drawings are presently housed in the Avery Library of Columbia University. 

A Milwaukee Journal newspaper column dated December 9, 1934, and collected in “At Taliesin,” by Randolph C. Henning, a compilation of newspaper articles, described the creation of Wright’s design: “To memorialize the Wisconsin pioneers, a chapel of reinforced concrete and glass (broad and sturdy) for the early family of the Newmanns (sic) at Cooksville came to the drawing board from the master’s hand last week, soon to be turned over to eager apprentices for working drawings. Whitman’s ‘Pioneers! O Pioneers!’ has found third-dimensional form in architecture here.” 

The Cooksville chapel plan was pictured on the cover of the catalogue for a Milwaukee Art Museum exhibit of Wright’s work in 1992. A Milwaukee Sentinel newspaper article about the exhibit called the chapel project “extraordinary” and “an elegantly rendered plan.”  

Wright wrote the following inscription on his finished plan and view: “Memorial to the tiller of the ground making the earth a feature of the monument or vice versa. FLW.”
               “Memorial to the Soil Chapel” Prospective and Plan

 A copy of Wright’s plan for his “Memorial to the Soil” chapel was provided by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation at Taliesin West to the Historic Cooksville Trust (HCT) in 2012 for educational use. Copies of other sketches (“study images”) of the project have been sent to the HCT in 2016 from the present Frank Lloyd Wright Archives in the Avery Library of Columbia University.
                          Drawing of the “Memorial to the Soil”

 Postscript: Frank Lloyd Wright’s uncle, Reverend Jenkin Lloyd Jones, preached at the 1879 dedication of the Cooksville Congregational Church, which is now part of the Cooksville Historic District. 

*   *   *   *

[Thanks to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Taliesin West, for the use of the image of the “Prospective and Plan, Chapel in Cast Concrete (“Memorial to the Soil”), Cooksville, 1934, Copyright 1985 The Frank Lloyd Wright Archives.”Also, thanks to the Avery Library Archives of Columbia University for sharing other working drawings of the chapel project, copies of which are in the Cooksville Archives.  Larry Reed]